SRAM Goes Hydraulic


This past weekend I joined a number of my colleagues in Westlake Village, California, for the introduction of a number of new products from SRAM. There was a lot on offer, more than they could cover in a two-hour presentation at Sea Otter, hence the get-together. We got to ride much of the new stuff hitting the market and in an environment suited to the mission. I’ll get to the riding in a minute; first, a list.

SRAM Force 22 groupset

So SRAM introduced the following:

  • An upgrade of the popular Red group to 11-speed
  • A revamped Force group with hoods shaped like those in Red and an 11-speed cassette
  • Hydraulic rim brakes
  • Zipp 303s with discs
  • Hydraulic disc brakes for Red


While I did pick up the new Force parts to check them out, I didn’t have the chance to ride them, so all I really feel qualified to do—other than regurgitate the press release—is to tell you that group will hit the market soon and the suggested retail on the group will be $1358, about half of Red 22’s $2618 price tag. According to the company’s scales, the refined group will come in at 2150 grams, putting it in the neighborhood, weight-wise, with Chorus and Dura-Ace 7900, making the Force group a notable value, at least on paper.


For mechanical Red, the only significant change is the addition of an 11th cog. So why is SRAM making a big deal about calling this group 22-speed? It goes to their assertion that users will have a true 22 speeds even without the presence of a trimable front derailleur. Shimano went in the other direction with their new 9000-series Dura Ace. The wide spread on an 11-speed cassette is going to demand a very carefully adjusted front derailleur to avoid chain rub in the big and small cogs, no matter which chainring the chain is on.


As a more practical matter, because SRAM continues  to start every flippin’ Red cassette with an 11t cog, the addition of another cog means that all the cassettes (save the 11-32 WiFLi) now sport a 16t cog. It’s nice having that 16, but if they’d offer a 12-26 and a 12-28, you’d then have the 16 and an 18. I’m willing to wager all the beer in Yankee Stadium that nine out of 10 cyclists would use an 18t cog far more than they use an 11. As to the 11-32 WiFLi cassette, an 11th cog there gives the the very noticeable addition of a 14t cog. In the past, when I rode the 10-speed Red with an Apex rear derailleur and the 11-32 cassette, I can tell you that the jump from the 15 to the 13 felt like I’d over-shifted with an Ergo lever. It was a big jump.

Mechanical Red remains the lightest complete group on the market, at a claimed weight of 1747g.



When I first arrived at our host location, I wasn’t sure just what I would see, other than 11 cogs. So I walked over to the NRS tents to see what the mechanics were up to. It was there that I noticed one of the mechanics bleeding a hydraulic brake system. From a road lever.

Well okee-dokee.


This would be the spot in the program where it’s a good idea for me to back up and remind everyone that I have written previously about just how skeptical I am of the need and utility of hydraulic brakes, particularly hydraulic discs, on road bikes. Honestly, I when I noticed what was afoot, I was a bit surprised that Michael Zellmann, the head of road PR for SRAM, had invited me. I mean, this was like pitching Dura-Ace to a guy who’d inherited his love of Campy from his dad. I do my best to be open-minded, but at every turn I had questions about just what sort of solution hydraulic discs offered.


Let’s recap those concerns, shall we?

  • If you boil your brake fluid on a descent, your brakes can fail.
  • Generally, you want the bike to offer some vertical flex at the dropouts; disc brakes would demand beefing up the fork and stays.
  • Many mountain bike disc brake system offer poor modulation. Road bike brakes need to offer great modulation.
  • Pad retraction is an issue on many mountain bike brake systems. Roadies won’t put up with rubbing brakes.
  • Disc brakes won’t improve a bike’s aerodynamics.
  • The hydraulic lines will require working hand-in-glove with manufacturers to offer suitable frames.
  • There isn’t enough room in control levers to add a master cylinder.
  • It’ll make the bike heavier. Roadies are allergic to heavier.


Last summer, I went for a ride with Brent Graves, the head of road product for Specialized. We discussed disc brakes quite a bit. It was hard not to detect his enthusiasm. So I posed each of my concerns to him. Damn that guy, he came back with the same answer each time.

“It’s an engineering issue,” he’d say with the confidence of a pilot who’s flown to Tokyo once a week for 10 years. “It’s just engineering.”

At that point I realized I should probably just shut up and wait to see what happens. What I didn’t know (because he didn’t tell me) was that he was already riding a disc-brake-equipped prototype of the Specialized Roubaix. What he did tell me was that I could expect to see hydraulic discs on road bikes at a variety of price points perhaps as early as 2015, but certainly by 2016.


Then it was me again with the skepticism. And then, damn his intelligence, he noted that every time there had been a significant shift in the market, it had begun with the curiosity of innovators and early adopters—the bleeding edge—and then as the idea caught on, refinement of the technology to make it both affordable and palatable to the masses.

Did someone just say iPhone?


Because not all bike companies will begin developing a frame to accept the disc brakes immediately and also because even by their own admission hydraulic discs won’t be right for all applications, SRAM is offering a hydraulic rim brake. Terminology-wise, they are referring to the class of products as “Hydro R” to denote hydraulic road. The disc brake is HRD, while the rim brake is HRR. As you can tell from the photos, the master cylinder is located in the inflamed thyroid of the lever bump. Let it be said that no one will ever be able to complain about the bump on SRAM road levers being too small any more.


Specialized is actively spec’ing a Roubaix with the discs and Cannondale has a version of the SuperSix EVO with the hydraulic calipers. This is no longer bleeding edge, this is leading edge.

So that’s the what. In my next post I’ll cover my experience of actually riding each of the options with Red 22: mechanical, HRR and then HRD.

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  1. Grego

    Sometimes, especially on protracted climbs, I change up how many fingers I use to grip the brake hoods on my bike in order to vary my hand positions. Ultegra 6603 doesn’t have much of a lever bump, and it’s a bit pointy, so it’s not comfortable to stay that way for very long. Those SRAM levers, though, look like mini-bullhorns or short mountain bike bar-ends. It looks like an easy way to get that additional hand position on a standard drop bar, which would be great. Too bad about the hydraulic side effect!

  2. trip

    First off – those hydraulic hoods look ridiculous! I finally upgrade my mountain bike this year and have disc brakes for the first time – and your concerns are exactly right – modulation is terrible unless it’s full on and the pad retraction (or lack thereof) is annoying. And this is on a mid-high level MTB. Sure they have more power, but my V-brakes had plenty. I want my road bikes to be smooth and quiet so unless they fix these issues I’m sticking with rim brakes!

  3. Sam

    Don’t know where you (or “trip”) are coming from when you say “Many mountain bike disc brake system offer poor modulation.” Sure, there are plenty of low-end systems that don’t modulate well, but Red 22 is obviously supposed to be a high-end system, so let’s compare apples to apples. Shimano’s high-end MTB brakes (XT/XTR level) have fantastic modulation.

    1. Author

      Trip: I’ll just ask that you withhold judgment until you read my second installment.

      Sam: I haven’t ridden any of the mid- or low-end stuff. I’ve ridden XT and high-end Avid, and I think modulation could be much better on both. Of course, there’s always the chance that this is a sensitivity issue from so many years on mechanical road brakes. It would be nice to spend two weeks doing nothing but riding off-road—and then see what I think of the modulation—but I don’t see that opportunity in my future.

  4. MattC

    I’ve had a two diff sets of discs on my MTB (XTR tubeless disc wheels)…I’ll call them low to mid end…I think the modulation is far better with my current Juicy 7’s (I call those ‘mid’, as compared to the Hayes Nine’s I had before) than my old XTR V brakes (I even had ceramic rims), and I don’t grind my rims to dust, and after riding thru 2″ of water I don’t totally lose my braking…which is rather important on a MTB where I’m apt to see water. I did quickly shift to 185 rotors tho (turned the stock 160’s blue on my first LONG steep downhill). Tho both the Hayes and Avids seem prone to pad rub (I HATE that so totally agree, and I can’t get it to totally go away). I MUST switch to the new XT/XTR when I can afford it…I hear the new stuff is THE BOMB! I anxiously await your review on the road discs…but agree that I’m not sure they are needed.

  5. MCH

    3-4 years from now, we’ll all be shifting electronically and braking hydraulically. We’ll look back and wonder how we did without it. I can’t help but remember all of the naysayers when Look pedals, SIS downtube, then brake lever shifters, aero spokes and wheels, 6, then 7, then 8 speed, etc., etc. were introduced. With every innovation, the question, “do we really need this?” was asked. The answer ultimately was yes.

    I’m looking forward to part 2.

  6. tinytim

    Looking at the current technology being employed and how it’s likely to evolve, road disc brakes do seem very viable. When I made the change from XTR V-brakes to XT disc brakes, back in the day, I loved the fact that hydraulic lines didn’t contaminate like the cable actuated stuff. I remember having to install new brake cables and housing before every gnarly mtb race, whether it was dry or wet, to have optimal brake modulation. With the hydraulic XT brakes, the modulation stays true for much longer (I haven’t bled my lines for 3 years now, and they still work great). Also, hydraulic fluid and pads for mtb have progressed so much in the last ten years, that, pad fade and fluid boiling are no longer an issue, and with road brakes being subjected to much less force than mtb, road hydraulic discs will be just fine. I think that as all shifter bodies become electric, more room will be available for the master cylinders. According to the VN article today, the discs are lighter than the current Red cable actuated rim brakes, when taking cables/housing into the weight consideration. Road disc opens up the carbon clincher market as well. No longer will people have to deal with delaminating carbon clinchers that cost $1500+ and don’t stop people while descending in the rain. It’s cool that Sram made the rim and disc hydraulic brakes compatible with the same brake lever. If one was inclined, they could purchase the rim and later upgrade to the discs when more frame manufactures come out with disc models. As a side note, discs change how and where people are able to ride their road bikes. A good friend has a Volagi, and he rides the thing with 32c cx tires on single track in the rain and then puts on 25c’s and rocks the local road circuit course, with full coverage fenders the whole time.

  7. bigwagon

    It annoys me that SRAM doesn’t offer a 16T on the 10-speed Red cassettes. I’m using a Shimano 12-26 cassette on mine for this reason.

  8. Scott G.

    SRAM has just introduced the hydraulic buggy whip, why intro a new non electronic group ? I,ll wait for the SRAM/Open electronic shifting system,
    compatible with Campy or Shimano 10/11 speed using an Iphone app to program the system.

  9. MCH

    Damn those merchants of obsolescence. IBM forced me to give up pen and paper for a typewriter, and then a computer. AT&T forced me buy a telephone rather than use the telegraph, and then had the audacity to make me buy a cell phone and then a smartphone!

  10. Gabor

    I have riden nearly a dozen MTBs at last Interbike and can attest to the wide range of modulation for Hydro brakes. Per my own experience on MTB, I have had severe hand pain from braking while on a downhill run. Even to the point of having to stop and shake the pain out to get the feeling back. I have yet to see anyone on a road bike stop and do that, so I also question the need for hydro brakes on the road.

  11. gustavo cinci

    i see this becoming a standard on gran fondo bikes, but that does not necessarily mean the dearth of caliper/cable actuated brakes. I suppose that like the Gran Fondos, disc brakes will be *another* alternative on the already vast quiver of bike/component choices. the costs of tooling and redoing can be heavy for smaller manufacturers, and disc brakes just cannot be as aero as reg calipers, or even those future brakes that exist on new models from BMC, Trek, Giant and Ridley (the built-in types). Yes, it is interesting, yes it merits attention and we should be free from preconceptions regarding new technologies. But to me this is a horrendous monstrosity that adds complications, weight and issues with compatibity. did i mention it’s ugly as sin? besides, if you need to be constantly on your brakes (and not going downhill for 30kms straight) then there’s something wrong with your skills.

  12. marquimarque


    There have been early adopters, such as Colnago C59 disk and other cross bikes. How do those frames integrate hydro lines and such differently that these prototypes? I would think the cross folks would be very pumped by this. For those with significant investment into wheels, not so much. The trend towards 11 cogs, especially when they start with the little useful 11t is surprising. There is no turning back, I suppose.

    I look forward to your next installment to get your thoughts – especially after you gushed about the Shimano 9000.

  13. Bikelink

    +infinity on 11 vs. 12 cog. I’m a cat 4 racer with a compact front crank. Even when chasing cat 1s on the flat at 34 mph I don’t feel undergeared. I’m currently running 12-23 (34/50), which is great for almost everything including non-mountainous east coast climbing (<7 minutes). I *like* the 18…it's a frequent gear when I'm doing 20 minute intervals on the trainer or road in the mid-200's wattage range.

    Disk brakes on road bikes: am greatly looking forward to this to get the brakes off the wheel rims…who ever though that was a good idea? Now swapping between wheels, even of hugely varying widths, not to mention compositions (alloy vs carbon), will be without regard to the braking surface. I have SLX on a mountain bike I ride weekly in the winter (mostly a roadie/trackie at heart) and love the braking…but modulation wise you just have to be careful not to pull too hard (Padraig…I think it *is* something you get used to if you use it more).

  14. Greg

    Having a first concern about boiling fluid is a bit archaic, seeing as how the temperatures experienced in a motorsport application are in the thousands of degrees and that problem was solved (in many ways) decades ago. This is not new technology, it is simply application of existing (and very old) technology.

    I can understand some of the concerns about the mechanics of hydraulic brakes, but the reasons I see behind that are more a result of the money that has been invested, or lack thereof, in the existing systems. I grew up racing cars & motorcycles and in most of those cases dragging pads was not an issue because the systems are engineered differently than those on a bicycle. The same goes for modulation, and it will just take a little time for all the engineering to be properly applied.

    1. Author

      Greg: Given that boiling of hydraulic fluid is something that does happen in braking systems used in cycling—independent of the fact that the problem has been solved in motorsport—makes it a perfectly valid concern. Until it never happens on any mountain bike, ever, we have reason to be concerned about just how well shielded the hydraulic system is from the heat generated at the calipers.

  15. Tim Lane

    From the comments I’m guessing not many of you have ridden with the most recent Shimano MTB disc brakes – they are in a different league from pretty much all else that came before, quiet, adequate pad retraction, great modulation and cooling fins all over so that mineral oil works just fine, they’re basically awesome for their purpose. If I’m guessing wrong, I probably sound like a bit of an ass, sorry.

    Here’s my counterpoint though: getting disks on a road frame may be “just engineering”, it’s taken 127 years of “just engineering” to develop the light weight, sweet riding bikes we enjoy. I imagine we will get there, but I’m going to remain objective rather than excited. Disk brakes are a good solution where muddy rims might clog up rim calipers or where rims are expected to be ridden after they’ve been knocked out of true, that’s only really MTB, CX and extreme touring (is that a thing?). Perhaps it’s just that I still think of CX as a thing to do with a knackered old bike rather than a shiny expensive one.

    FWIW I think the hydraulic rim brake caliper looks very promising for most road bike applications.

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